HBO's Chernobyl Isn't Just Historical Drama, It's Straight-Up Horror


WARNING: The following contains spoilers for HBO's Chernobyl

HBO's Chernobyl is a five-episode miniseries written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck detailing the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of April 1986 and the cleanup efforts that ensued in Ukraine and neighboring countries.

But as much as the show acts as a historical retelling of the incident, Chernobyl goes a step further than just recounting the swirling emotions and global fallout. Renck actually transforms the story from a historical drama into a straight-up horror movie to ensure the impact of the catastrophe hits home in ways news reports could never translate for the public.

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The aesthetic of this series is grainy and dark, spending quite a bit of time borrowing from masters of horror like Clive Barker and John Carpenter, especially in the early stages. This is to truly shape the nuclear explosion and the radiation leaking throughout the Soviet's RBMK reactor in Pripyat as a dire disaster and something which shouldn't be sugar-coated.

These sequences are terrifying and, as we see people inside the plant falling prey to leaking radiation, Renck cleverly positions the nuclear poisoning, even outside the plant where firefighters approach and pass out, as a virus. It's a smart approach and feels like a modern horror movie, further accentuated by composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who actually used sound effects from nuclear plants to score the show in harrowing fashion.

We end up with a haunting, claustrophobic story in the dark, with red lights flickering on and off, alarms blaring and people collapsing, bleeding out every orifice and with skin peeling away as if it's a zombie apocalypse.

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Which brings us to the victims and the aesthetic Chernobyl uses for death. Seeing flesh falling off and people gaunt, pale and dying before your very eyes can be quite disconcerting, but that's the true ramifications of such an incident. The creative team, though, doesn't just throw them at you for shock value and create gory sequences gratuitously.

Instead, they provide us with slow builds similar to how Christopher Nolan unveiled Two-Face in The Dark Knight, with Chernobyl even coming off a bit like Dracula and other vampire movies when it reveals its victims in the recesses of the plant.

When the scenes switch later on to victims in hospitals, even during daylight, it's like a horrific disease ravaged the town and led to this quarantine, again similar to flicks like 28 Days Later. It even comes off as if the radiation is possessing people, sending them mad and leaving loved ones broken, trying to figure out if a cure exists.

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Also, when you see the animals being killed in the aftermath, it's reminiscent of indie horror movies like Neil Marshall's Dog Soldiers, for example. We see mutated animals, disfigured ones and dying creatures, which, unless you knew you were watching Chernobyl, you'd probably think is a post-apocalyptic series along the lines of The Walking Dead or Resident Evil.

What this does is keep you on edge with an intriguingly tension-riddled dynamic coming across from protagonists and antagonists who treat the disaster as a monster, with the kind of fear and urgency you'd remember from when the military planned tactics against the Cloverfield monster or Godzilla.

When divers go into radiated waters as well to drain tanks so as to avoid water being overheated and causing future explosions, it's also as if they're swimming to avoid Jaws or some beast submerged. After all, they know the longer they stay in those poisoned waters, the more they shorten their lifespan.

And by making the disaster an entity of its own, pursuing victims like this across land, air and sea, you get the ultimate villain; something near-immortal (as the radiation's half-life is over hundreds of years) that you cannot defeat.

Framing it against politicians covering up the incident is also cleverly done, as these folks come off like dark overlords whose experiments went awry. The Kremlin itself and its propaganda machine all feel like an evil organization that unleashed this monster onto Europe. So, when they're dumbfounded regarding solutions to contain what they let out, let's just say it's like scientists realizing they can't tame what's been inadvertently released.

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Ultimately, what Chernobyl does is give character and personality to the nuclear waste. In these sequences of creeping suspense, as we watch the disaster affect other Soviet countries, the series reminds us that, while men were the monsters behind the event, the radiation was a behemoth that literally sucked the life out of thousands of victims.

Chernobyl is created by Craig Mazin and stars Emily Watson, Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård and Jessie Buckley. All five episodes are now available to stream on HBO Go and HBO Now.

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